Advent is one of my favorite times on the church calendar. But when I was growing up, it was little more than the Christmas pre-season, a countdown to the birth of Jesus... and the cool benefits for kids that came with commemorating that event... time off from school, presents, and lots of food. The real meaning of Advent would escape me until I got older.
Advent is sometimes misunderstood. Most people with a traditional church background understand that it’s observed the four Sundays before Christmas, but we don’t always understand the significance of the season. And churches that use the Lectionary are sometimes caught off guard by the passages that reference the second coming of Christ. (“We haven’t even celebrated the first coming yet!”)
And that’s the point. Contrary to what you may have heard, Advent is much more than the beginning of the Christian year. It’s also the end of the Christian year. It’s a beautiful season of hope and mystery where we simultaneously commemorate the first coming of Christ and wait with expectation for the second. I didn’t really understand that for the longest time. I’d hear the haunting songs of Advent (when we weren’t sneaking in early Christmas carols) and I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people living before the birth of Christ. But it’s hard to really get into the groove of that, especially when you know how everything turns out.
The cool thing about Advent is that we’re waiting for Christ too, and we’re dealing with an element of uncertainty the same way people were 2,000 years ago. We don’t know when it’s going to be! And we don’t even know exactly how everything’s going to go down. I sometimes get amused when people get dogmatic about certain end times theories. A few years ago, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins shattered sales records with their apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind, and with the success of that series came an increased interest in eschatology and the end times. Hal Lindsey had created similar buzz a generation before with his Zondervan bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth.
But it turns out, many people aren’t very flexible or generous when it comes to end times orthodoxy. Mention the Left Behind series in most mainline circles (and even in some other Christian groups) and your comment will likely be met with derision. "Only people who don’t understand the Bible could believe in something as ridiculous as the rapture!" And this attitude goes the other way too. In 2005, after Tyndale had released the first book in a fiction trilogy with an alternative viewpoint, Tim LaHaye blasted his publisher: "They are going to take the money we made for them and promote this nonsense."
The truth is, we don’t know every detail of what the end times will bring, or when everything will take place. Odds are, we won’t even be the generation that sees it all unfold. (Not from our current vantage point anyway.) I love talking about different end times theories, and I try hard to be patient with people who think they have everything all figured out. Some of us may concede that we don’t have all the answers, but we’re way too sure that the other guy doesn’t have any of the answers.
No matter what your favorite end times theory is, two things are certain. One is that we’re all going to enter eternity at some point, and for most of us, we’re going to do it the old fashioned way—by dying! The second is that Christians can always face uncertainty with hope. That’s what the season of Advent is about—hope. Hope gives us confidence that God is going to work everything out in the end. Hope is the reason many churches have switched their Advent colors from purple to blue in recent years. Purple is a color that generally represents penitence and fasting (think Lent), while blue symbolizes hope. No doubt many disagree with this, and if you spend much time around liturgical purists, you’ll see how seriously people take this stuff. Personally, I’m partial to blue because I think it helps differentiate the tone of the season from Lent.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at how the Advent season relates to the end times. With the 2012 phenomenon and all the speculation surrounding December 21 this year, it seems like as good a time as any. It should be fun and informative.
Just don’t stop making your mortgage payments yet.